Modern Skills

08Dec12

When does asking for training become an excuse not to try something new?

I recently had an interesting discussion on Twitter with @GrahamBM about the use of technology in education. He’s probably best-known as the founder of Learning Without Frontiers. Also involved was @jackandraka, from his point of view of a student who has clearly been able to use what he has learned – presumably both inside the classroom and independently – to produce new innovations in cancer diagnosis.

It started when I butted in to his conversation with @gillpenny. Many of those responding to his comments seemed not to be teachers, and I wonder if the reality of coordinating (and to an extent controlling) thirty teenagers totally escaped some of them.

@grahambm @bobharrisonset they need time with device ahead of kids not to learn how to use but to familiarise in order to realise potential

— Gillian Penny (@gillpenny) December 8, 2012

.@bobharrisonset if teachers in the UK need training on how to use everyday 21st century appliances for learning they’re in wrong job

— Graham Brown-Martin

My argument is, I think – apologies if I’m putting words in her mouth! – similar to that of @gillpenny. In some respects whether teachers are familiar with tablets or not is irrelevant. Knowing how to do something is not the same as being able to best teach how to use it. I can kick a football around, albeit badly. Even if I were an expert player, that doesn’t necessarily mean I could referee a practice game while teaching a GCSE PE lesson. If you’re going to be responsible for them, first aid and risk assessment skills are needed. With computers, we as teachers will be held responsible if kids get into ‘trouble’ online. We need a certain level of practical trouble-shooting activity, to be able to sort out the settings when Johnny has set the language to Swedish, or what to do when the screen has mysteriously become reversed. We need to be able to fix all the varied problems that can be caused by students, deliberately or otherwise, which requires much greater familiarity than the average user. Because otherwise the lessons descend into chaos.

Secondly, the practicalities of teaching the skills involved with effective use of a mobile device are partially specific to that device. I love my tablet – a first generation Galaxy Tab. I use it at home, on the go and at school. Email, reading books and media sites, keeping up with blogs via RSS, producing and managing my own blog, saving ideas via Evernote and Pocket, playing games, Twitter including chats such as #SciTeachJC and #asechat… and I know there’s lots of applications I could add on. But those applications aren’t quite the same as those on an iPad. Or a more modern Android tablet. Or on a small-screen phone. Blackberry apps are different again. And the similarities can fool you just as much as the differences; Americans and Brits can really confuse each other talking about fags and pants, for example…

Of course we should be teaching students about using mobile devices effectively – but which mobile devices do we concentrate on? It’s reasonable for teachers to want the chance to know how they work in the classroom before we rely on them. Then we can focus on them as tools, as ways to apply the thinking and reasoning skills we really want to pass on. I want my kids to be able to use Google effectively, of course I do. But part of that – something I hope all teachers do, explicitly and implicitly – is teaching them to be sceptical about the results. I want them to consider the reliability of the sites they find, to check for bias, to look for opposing viewpoints. And this example brings me to my own classroom experience.

It’s a common claim that students these days are ‘digital natives’. It’s bollocks. It’s like someone claiming a hundred years ago that all ten year olds should intuitively be able to use libraries because they lived in the age of the printed word. Yes, every student from Foundation to Year 7 was born this century. So what? Not all of them have smartphones, and certainly not all of them can use them effectively in a learning context. Every student I have in secondary school can talk – admittedly not all in English – but that doesn’t mean they can present an argument to establish the truth of a proposition.

In my Year 10 Science class I have 32 bright students. The majority have smartphones, although we don’t allow them in school. (Don’t blame me, talk to the management.) We’re in a fairly affluent, aspirational area, a leafy suburb on the outskirts of a Midlands city. But it’s easy to assume too much about their use of mobile devices.

They don’t know what RSS feeds are, let alone how to use them to follow blogs that they’re interested in. They prefer to search using YouTube – great to know, but useless for complex data or meaningful research. They can share links with each other by FaceBook, but are much less confident collaborating on anything document-based such as GoogleDocs. Research is when they copy and paste from Wikipedia, or from one of the first five hits they get if they put the homework title into Google. They use Twitter instead of broadcast text messages, but don’t tend to share ideas or links. Basically, they’re using mobile devices the same way teenagers have always used technology; to talk to their friends, extend their social life through music and media, and look at porn. Sometimes, I suspect, simultaneously.

It’s great to use examples of teenagers who get more out of technology. @jackandraka and @nickdaloisio (the Summly inventor) are two examples shared by @GrahamBM, and I’d add @rhysmorgan to the list. But it’s important to recognise that these kids are outliers. They’re the exception, not the rule. Of course we, as teachers, need to be offering a range of experiences in our classrooms. But we can’t tailor every moment to every student, all at the same time. Expecting us to be able to manage a classroom with both ends of the spectrum, without practice and training with new resources, technology and approaches, is asking for trouble. It’s all very well to seek to ‘disrupt’ learning when you’re on the outside. In a classroom, sometimes all you can do is provide the basics – which are not always exciting, or enjoyable, or inspiring – and then provide opportunities for students to stretch themselves, with or without our guidance.

Personally, I’d love us to provde more teaching in using technology in a learning context. I’d love to see my students blogging their lessons, cross-referencing between subjects, sharing links live and tweeting throughout the lesson with insights or difficulties. I’d give every 11 year old in the country a Google Nexus 7 and a Gmail account, and see what happens. But don’t blame the teachers when things don’t go as planned.

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3 Responses to “Modern Skills”

  1. 1 Mary Whitehouse

    So, we need to think of useful ways of encouraging them to broaden their skills?

    • Absolutely; it’s not that they’re stupid, just ignorant. The problem is that until we see the results of what they do – and show the kids that we value their progress – they’ve no need to do it. At the moment only my sixth formers show any inclination to use more than very basic skills for their learning, which is more than a little frustrating. Sadly it’s a little more complicated than “The kids can do it if we only let them bring their phones in.”

  2. Ian,

    A few fairly incoherent points follow:

    The term “digital native” is not necessarily an invalid category to put a child into, but it does not apply to every child in this generation of learners and it certainly doesn’t mean they are equipped to use digital tools effectively for learning. It also doesn’t actually mean very much! I would say that when I was growing up, I was a “VCR native” and a “BBC micro native” because I grew up with a VCR that I used regularly (to create videos, and also to edit out the adverts whenever Star Wars was on TV) and BBC Model B microcomputer (on which I learned to program). But not every kid in my class was.

    I think the term is just a lazy one that reflects technological change. “Tablet native” might be more appropriately used to describe that young children growing up right now are developing skills to navigate an ipad or tablet computer. This is not just because they are using them at a young age and so learn what they do through play, but also because the interface is very intuitive and easy to use. Tablets and phones now are far more ubiquitous than the BBC Micro was when I was growing up. But even so, I think you are correct to say that being able to use a device and being able to use a device effectively for learning are two separate things.

    In my classroom I allow students are allowed to use their phone as a calculator if they feel they have to, but I know they’re building a dependency on a device that they don’t know how to use correctly and that they won’t be allowed in the exam, so I think I am going to stop them using them for this purpose.

    Also being able to type something into google is not the same as effectively researching something on the internet. I regularly get students who simply type the question I’ve asked them to research into google and click on the first link (which is often wikianswers or wikihow), then raise their hand to ask if it’s right – or simply copy and paste the answer into their work. The student who does that may have grown up surrounded by technology and google, but he is not an effective “digital native”. Your analogy of books and libraries is sound.


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